Why Do Songs Get Stuck In Your Head?
--- Causes and Top 7 Natural Remedies
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Last updated August 16, 2016 (originally published March 28, 2014)
By Louise Carr, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist

[Health and fitness articles are reviewed by our team of Doctors and
Registered Nurses, Certified fitness trainers and other members of
our Editorial Board.]

We've all had it happen. You're listening to a few verses of
an annoying pop song or a commercial jingle when,
suddenly, you find the melody stuck firmly in your brain.

No matter what you do, it becomes clear that you can;t get
it out of your head.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the song,
“I Can’t Get You Out of My Head” by Kylie Minogue, was
named the catchiest tune of all time in a survey carried out
by computational musicologist John Ashley Burgoyne in

Why is the head bothered by these musical squatters?

These persistent pop ditties or tireless tunes are called
earworms, after the German “Ohrwurm”, and are likened
by researcher James Kellaris to an "itch" that you just can't

Other names for earworms are "stuck song syndrome" by
Daniel Levitin, "sticky music" by Oliver Sacks, and
"involuntary musical imagery" (INMI) by Lassi Liikkanen.

When earworms take hold they don’t let go. And they can
attack at any time.

How Widespread are Earworms?

James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati carried out a
survey of 559 students in 2003 and found earworms
burrowed their way into the brain “frequently” or “very
frequently” among 61.5 percent of the sample, lasting over
a few hours.

Men tend not to let earworms bother them much. Women
were significantly more irritated by the occurrence than
men and the attacks were more frequent in musicians and
music lovers.

In a 2008 survey by Liikkanen, 91.7 percent of the 12,420
Finnish Internet users surveyed about their earworm
experience reported a stuck tune at least once a week, with
33.2 percent suffering at least once a day and 26.1 percent
several times a day.

A 2007 report from the University of Hull also revealed a
surprisingly high incidence of earworms, with the
prevalence rate varying between 12 percent and 53

Which Songs are the Stickiest?

People tend to get songs in their head that have a
repetitive pattern or an intriguing time structure - these
songs are musically intriguing so they are easily played
back in the brain.

Kellaris listed Chili's "Baby Back Ribs" jingle as number two
most irritating earworm, followed by   "Who Let the Dogs
Out", "We Will Rock You," the Kit-Kat candy-bar jingle
(Gimme a Break ...), the Mission Impossible theme, YMCA,
"Whoomp, There It Is," "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", and
"It's a Small World After All".

And number one? Any other song. Kellaris claims everyone
has their own individual earworm.

Slightly more contemporary, according to a research team
at Western Washington University (2013) Lady Gaga was
the artist most likely to stick in your head, with the songs
"Alejandro", "Bad Romance", "Just Dance" and "Paparazzi"
the stickiest. Katy Perry’s "California Girls", and "Hey, Soul
Sister" by Train were also cited.

Unfortunately for you and everyone around you, there is
no clear explanation for why these earworms burrow into
your head.

However, certain clues offer a tantalizing glimpse of a
reason, and a solution. But as with the off-switch, it's
always just out of reach.

Top 7 Natural Remedies

Play a Different Tune

Tune the radio to a different station, or play a different
melody on another instrument.

You might want to try an instrumental piece or classical
music. Music without lyrics is the least likely to cause

James Kellaris of the University of Cincinnati, in a 2003
study, found that songs with lyrics were most frequently
reported as earworms (74 percent), followed by jingles
(15 percent) and then instrumental pieces (11 percent).

Playing something else is a popular solution. Kellaris said
around two-thirds of the time sufferers used another tune
to try to dislodge the stuck one from the brain.

There’s even an internet site http://unhearit.com/
dedicated to “those of you that have a song stuck in your
head and you can't get it out no matter what you do.

Using the latest in reverse-auditory-melodic-unstickification
technology, the site claims that they can help users to
“unhear” songs by hearing equally catchy songs.

Suffer Until You've Destroyed the Earworm

Some scientists believe that earworms are a method of
closing a gap in the mind that is provided by a scale, a
rhythm or a set of lyrics - you’ve got to get it complete
before your brain can move on.

Did you know that Mozart's kids frequently taunted him
with unfinished scales played on a piano in the next room,
which forced the genius to rush to the instrument to
complete the unfinished scale?

Listening to the song over and over again is often the only
way you can "complete" the unfinished tune, memorize the
lyrics, or “solve” the scale. About 14% of the time, people
try to do this in order to get it to end, according to Kellaris
in 2003.

Pass the Song Along

If you want to test your relationship with your partner or
friends, sing the melody to someone else.

It turns out, ear worms are contagous.  James Kellaris said
more than a third of the time people with earworms tried
talking with someone about it to force the melody from
their brain.

Try Meditation to Calm the Mind and Get Rid of Earworms

According to a 2012 study from Goldsmiths, University of
London, UK, situations of stress and obsessive compulsive
disorder can be blamed for many incidences of earworms.

Researchers say “we think certain personality factors like
the extent to which you’re obsessive compulsive might play
a part in how you experience these inner tunes.”

Try meditation to “switch off” the song. In a 1999 study
from The Research Group for Mind-Body Dynamics, the
Institute for Nonlinear Science, University of California a
yoga meditation technique called "kundalini" was more
effective for treating OCD than relaxation therapy involving
mindfulness meditation.

But not all studies agree. A 2008 study from the Centre of
Research on Psychology in Somatic Disease (CoRPS),
Tilburg University, The Netherlands found mindfulness
meditation was more helpful than no intervention.

Don’t Overplay Songs

Researchers at the University of Montreal, 2010, say
earworms typically take root when you’ve listened to a
song a great many times.

You don’t have to have heard the song recently, but if you
spent your childhood listening to one track over and over
again it could turn into an earworm in the future.

Solve Anagrams and Use Distraction Techniques to
Destroy Earworms

The best way to stop a song sticking in your head,
according to a 2013 study from Western Washington
University, is to solve some difficult anagrams.

According to the researchers, this forces music out of your
working memory to leave space for less intrusive thoughts.

But don’t try anything too difficult, or the melody could
sneak back in. “The key is to find something that will give
the right level of challenge,” according to Dr Ira Hyman at
Western Washington University.

“If you are cognitively engaged, it limits the ability of
intrusive songs to enter your head.” For example, Sudoku
puzzles prevented songs from replaying but not if they
were too tricky.

Anagrams of five letters were most successful. You could
also try reading a novel.

Fill Your Time Productively to Avoid Sticky Songs

A 2007 report from the University of Hull found the highest
incidence of earworms were when people were waiting in
line or hanging round filling time.

People were aware of the music playing but it wasn’t the
focus of their attention. And a 2013 study from the
University of Montreal reported that most people were
doing something routine or mindless like taking a shower
or doing housework when the earworm strikes.

Keep yourself busy to keep those earworms at bay.
Unfortunately there is unlikely to be an extermination of
earworms in the near future. The elusive quality that makes
the song stick in your head is also often what makes it a hit
or a success with consumers.


Replace the Earworm with Another Song.

Replacing one song with another often works to displace
earworms. Substitute a song from a totally different genre.
If your earworm is a pop song, choose a classical song as
the substitute. If the worm is a classical song, choose a
heavy metal substitute. Listen to the substitute song a few
times and try to hum to sing along. While using a substitute
runs the risk that the substitute song will itself become an
earworm, what this natural remedy does it help to train
your brain to switch.

Switching or dropping the substitute will be much easier
than displacing the first earworm.

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You can unstick a song from your head by
solving a sudoko or other anagrams, studies